Stressed Out: Storm Water


Source: Senate Finance Committee

by James A. Bacon

Two years ago  Clyde Cristman made a presentation to the Senate Finance Committee estimating how much it would cost to meet Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay watershed clean-up goals. Some of the costs were reasonably solid but others, he recalls, “were little better than a wild guess.” The total tab for state government, local government, farmers and property owners: between $13.6 and $15.7 billion.

That document is still being cited as the most definitive report on the subject. “I was hoping that someone would come along and say, ‘Cristman doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” says the legislative analyst. But nobody has.

The biggest wild card is the cost of meeting storm water TDML standards, which Cristman guesstimates will cost between $9.4 billion and $11.7 billion. (TDML stands for maximum allowable Total Maximum Daily Load of nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and other pollutants.) While the Virginia Department of Transportation will be liable for about $2.1 billion, the rest will fall upon local governments.

By 2014 all governments in Virginia are required to put storm water programs into effect, says Larry Land, director of policy development for the Virginia Association of Counties. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. Between the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the Clean Water Act, the Virginia Storm Water Management Act, an Obama administration executive order and the shift in state oversight from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the Department of Environment Quality, he says, “it gets so entangled, it creates a confusing milieu.”

One thing that seems likely is that localities will get slammed by new financial obligations , however large, at the worst possible time. The $14-15 billion clean water bill comes due just as local governments are being forced to shoulder in $15.2 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

The sums are so large that it is difficult to imagine paying for them out of general funds. “There are a lot of localities that don’t have a clue” how they will handle the situation,  says Cristman. Many may feel compelled to institute new taxes or user fees.

There are two obvious models in Virginia. The City of Richmond has imposed a tax on property owners that varies according to the size of the property and the amount of runoff-causing impervious surface. That tax funds a special storm water utility, which uses the money to fund everything from rain gardens and permeable alleys to the de-clogging of ditches that cause flooding. By contrast, Fairfax County lumps its charge into it property tax assessment. However, Christman says

Bacon’s bottom line: As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I strenuously oppose most taxes. But I’m open to the idea of a storm-water utility fee in my home jurisdiction of Henrico County, and I think it ought to be structured like Richmond’s. Responsibility for repairing our rivers and streams should fall upon the people causing the problem, not the general population. Homeowners would pay a modest fee while businesses — especially property owners with large parking lots — would pay the most. Fees should be structured so that property owners have incentives to reduce the amount of permeable surface or install Best Management Practices such as vegetative buffers. Additionally, developers should be rewarded for low-impact development — something the county could encourage by eliminating its minimum-parking mandates.

While charging a storm-water tax may be the best solution from an economic perspective, that won’t make it any easier for city councils and county boards that have to break the news to voters. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially in localities that choose to raise taxes to fund their pension liabilities.

It’s going to be a rough couple of years.

Update: The situation may not be as dire as portrayed here. The state has set up a fund, reader Ann Cunby tells me, that provides a 50/50 match to help localities meet the TDML guidelines. To find out more about the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, click here.

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19 responses to “Stressed Out: Storm Water

  1. I’m heartened to see that we’re getting a “come to Jesus” perspective on storm water which I’ve always felt was the 600 lb gorilla – not agriculture.

    3 times bigger that all the other sources combined according to the charts.

    If you need convincing – think about your own life – what happens near your home and near commercial when it rains?

    sediment-filled, pet-pooped filled, parking lot detritus – all flush into local streams and creeks every time it rains. Look at your street. look at a parking lot – and imagine what’s there going down the storm drain – into a creek – thence into the river and the Bay.

    sewage is no longer easy either. If you take drugs or hormones – you are depositing it in the sewage stream – and no current technologies remove it – it goes straight into the critter bodies from ours.

    But storm water at least starts to confront the realities that until this point, many of us just have ignored or never knew it’s deleterious impacts.

    might be interesting to compare/contrast smart growth vs sprawl in terms of storm water…. I suspect smart growth -done right – pollutes far less.

  2. “But agriculture is also the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay.”.

    Stormwater is a significant problem too, no doubt about that.

    It will be interesting to see how BigAg buys off Virginia’s politicians on this one.

    In Maryland the rain tax is limited to only 10 of Maryland’s 24 counties (and one independent city). None of the bayfront counties on the Eastern Shore are included.

    Agricultural use properties are expected to be generally exempt.

    Each of the localities make up their own tax rules for the rain tax. Some counties push most of the tax on commercial property. Some have different rates for condos vs detached homes.

    One can only imagine Virginia’s “gift giving class” calling the elected recipients of those gifts. “Hey Senator Snort, you remember those Redskins tickets and our campaign contributions? It doesn’t really seem fair that we should be paying a lot of this rain tax, now does it?”.

  3. As an aside, Jim – why not charge a set fee per year based on the square feet of impervious surface? Too hard to administer?

    • No, not terribly hard at all. That’s what the City of Richmond does. As I recall, they use satellite imagery to calculate rooftops, driveways, parking lots and miscellaneous asphalt surfaces. If you reduce the impervious surface you get a lower assessment.

      I love it when people pay their location-variable costs!

      • As long as everybody pays them – I agree. We’ll see if farms are charged for runoff from impervious surfaces. I’ll bet they demand (and get) an exemption. We’ll see if some municipalities decide to soak the commercial sector rather than risk the ire of voters.

        A few people have made some very large contributions and given some large gifts to Virginia’s politicians. I suspect they will be looking for the “thank you’s” as this unfolds.

      • not sure that’s “location” variable costs…

        in theory – a 2000 square foot house in Great Falls would be no different than a 200 square foot house 50 miles away in Fredericksburg.

        Now, in theory, a 10 story building with 100 units would pay no more than whatever number of single family homes occupied the same acreage. Right?

  4. Looking at the cleanup cost estimates – if AG is 1/2 the problem why are the costs 1/10th of stormwater?

    that’s curious to me.

    also – I believe Richmond and other places are square foot of impervious surface but a recent court cases are wrangling over whether a tax is a fee (as if paying for water/sewer is a “tax” rather than a fee – but I digress).

    Finally, septic tanks have the effect of “sequestering” both drug/hormones as well as nutrients although I’ve heard recently that septic tanks do discharge nutrients into groundwater and then from there into waterways.

    I need to see more substantiation. We know that at least SOME nutrients are taken up by vegetation in the drainfield.

    so what I’d like to see is how many nutrients – per person make their way into the water ways from sewage treatment plants verses septic fields – and then for some rule that limits on a per person basis … whatever it takes for wastewater systems – municipal or residential septic.

    but I still don’t think these are the 600 lb gorilla. storm water is.

    and to a certain extent – if a farm operation is NOT treating manure from poultry, or livestock – it IS, in fact, stormwater runoff…not that different than the pet poop that washes off of residential lawns and commercial parking lots and municipal streets.

    I STILL believe that unless we actually take readings of the waterways that we are speculating.

    taking samples from the waterways – is like you getting a blood test to identify the component parts of your blood. It’s common for a physician to order this before they do much more… they need to see what’s in your blood.

    In the same way, we need to KNOW what is ACTUALLY in our waterways – not what we THINK is in them.

    We cannot be dictating billions of dollars of cleanup costs on model data instead of actual data from the rivers.

    Not only is it foolish and wasteful – in the end – those opposed are going to win in the courts and force actual sampling anyhow.

    I still don’t think we are truly serious until we actually validate what the problems are – to validate the models.

  5. Makes sense – sort of – go to any hilly pasture – and tell me you can stop the runoff with vegetative buffers – only at the river.

    but even then – there is a bit of a conundrum. Runoff from AG is nutrients – from manure and antibiotics and hormones from the stuff fed to livestock and poultry.

    Runoff from urban is different – it’s got nutrients – pet poop – but also all manner of other pollutants – oil, antifreeze, etc.

    typically in urban areas – the focus of nutrients is at the wastewater plants.

    is your chart – stormwater ? Ag Stormwater or AG other?

  6. Quick read. This is TMDLs – it’s all sources into the receiving rivers vs a determination of what the total maximum the river can sustain – for each substance – like nitrogen.

    they’re ALSO talking about huge costs for septic systems with very little solid data to back up the claims.

    I predict – a deluge of lawsuits to force them to prove the science.

    they’re trying to do this with models. And people are going to be skeptical to start with but then when money comes into the equation – they’re going to insist of real data that shows real results – not some computer model.

    And I have nothing at all against computer models – as long as those models have been validated against real data… but to use models that have not been validated – is going to ultimately fail in the courts.

    we need solid science. we need real water quality sampling. and we need requirements and dollars tied to those real things. People are not going to accept the fees without being convinced that pre and post monitoring are going to be used to prove results.

  7. If AG is producing food – and they are all affected in a similar way -all this will do is increase the price of food…

    unless of course – farmers outside of the Chesapeake Bay don’t have those costs and can gain a competitive advantage…put the Va farmers out of business… save the Chesapeake Bay but then have a bunch more ex-farmers on the entitlement rolls…

    geeze.. what a buzz-killer…

  8. Oh and don’t think this don’t happens. Where are the HOG farms? In North Carolina…. 🙂 – of course – we have the chicken/turkey farms – for now…. when the new rules go into effect – they’re probably headed for NC also.

  9. You may be interested in a recent study released by the James River Association that tackled just this issue – the costs of addressing storm water and finding cost-effective ways to do so.

    Our key findings revealed that the average annual costs per pound of pollution removed can range from 44 cents to over $70,000. For the City of Richmond, the costs of meeting their storm water requirements could be reduced by 70% from initial estimates by adapting a suite of the most cost effective practices to local conditions. Costs could be reduced by up to 80% if the City had additional flexibility to utilize some of the most cost effective practices that have not yet been officially “approved” by the EPA, and to be able to place practices on land beyond what the City owns itself.

    If you’d like to learn more, an executive summary and the full study can be found here:

    If you have any questions, I’m happy to discuss.

  10. I’m off the read the article but I would LOVE to see you get with Jim Bacon and write a guest post on it.

    I’m convinced the key to an effective program is cost-effective and honest approaches to the problem – not dictates without scientific justifications.

    and I SUPPORT the cleanup. I FEAR that we pursue flawed approaches we will damaged the entire effort – in a similar way that the climate issue has foundered.

  11. yup: here is the key info:

    ” Annual maintenance costs associated with this practice include the cost to conduct annual monitoring to verify that discharges have been eliminated. We assumed this would require annual sampling at the outfall as well as the point of discharge. Costs include 1 hour of staff time per site to collect samples (at $25/hr). Sample analysis costs include $40/sample for in-house or field analysis of ammonia, flouride, potassium, detergents and bacteria, plus 1 hour of staff time (at $25/hr) plus $20 per sample for contract lab analysis of TN and TP. It was assumed that monitoring to verify the discharge has been corrected would be required for 5 years, so the maintenance costs associated with 5 years of monitoring were spread over 20 years.”

    BPMs based on modelling are fine as a first step. But the job is not done until you do the above….

    After we’ll built up a database of BMP vs real world effectiveness – we MAY be able to reduce the intensity of the sampling as long as it stays within the expected boundary limits.

    What you cannot do: you cannot say ” we are scientists and we know what we are doing and you have a pay a bunch of money to fix this – trust us”.

    As soon as the public receives that message – you are done.

  12. And so this, my friends, is where citizen science can play a role. Much valuable water monitoring can and is being done in Virginia by trained volunteers initially and then backed up by more expensive analysis as needed. DEQ is your source for more info on how citizen monitoring works.

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